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The Modern Period

Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America

Lara Freidenfelds

Publication Year: 2009

The Modern Period examines how and why Americans adopted radically new methods of managing and thinking about menstruation during the twentieth century. In the early twentieth century women typically used homemade cloth "diapers" to absorb menstrual blood, avoided chills during their periods to protect their health, and counted themselves lucky if they knew something about menstruation before menarche. New expectations at school, at play, and in the workplace, however, made these menstrual traditions problematic, and middle-class women quickly sought new information and products that would make their monthly periods less disruptive to everyday life. Lara Freidenfelds traces this cultural shift, showing how Americans reframed their thinking about menstruation. She explains how women and men collaborated with sex educators, menstrual product manufacturers, advertisers, physical education teachers, and doctors to create a modern understanding of menstruation. Excerpts from seventy-five interviews—accounts by turns funny and moving—help readers to identify with the experiences of the ordinary people who engineered these changes. The Modern Period ties historical changes in menstrual practices to a much broader argument about American popular modernity in the twentieth century. Freidenfelds explores what it meant to be modern and middle class and how those ideals were reflected in the menstrual practices and beliefs of the time. This accessible study sheds new light on the history of popular modernity, the rise of the middle class, and the relationship of these phenomena to how Americans have cared for and managed their bodies.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. 1-12

From cloth “diapers” boiled on the stove and reused, to Kotex and Tampax. From shock at the sight of the first bleeding and an awkward explanation by an embarrassed mother to educational films and pamphlets in fifth-grade classrooms. From warnings to avoid swimming, over-exertion, and “mental shock” to reassurances that having one’s period did not preclude any normal work...

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1 Before “Modern” Menstrual Management: Keeping Secrets, Wearing Diapers, Avoiding Chills

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pp. 13-37

At the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States, “modern” approaches to menstrual management were just beginning to take shape, and most women still thought about and managed menstruation in ways that would have been familiar to many generations of their ancestors. They learned about menstruation only haphazardly and thought of it as shameful...

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2 The Modern Way to Talk about Menstruation: Education, The Scientific Narrative, and Public Discussion

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pp. 38-73

A 1934 book called Your Sex Questions Answered: What Every Modern Mother and Father Should Know told parents that before a girl’s first period, “she should understand that menstruation is not getting rid of impurities, but that the blood and other material which would nourish a potential child has to be discarded when not used for procreation; that Nature has established menstruation...

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3 The Modern Way to Behave while Menstruating: Changing Health Beliefs and Practices

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pp. 74-119

Between the late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century, medical and popular beliefs about the relationship between menstruation and general health shifted dramatically. By the 1990s, women and physicians in United States were remarkably unconcerned about menstruation as an indicator of general health or illness. Even more definitively, they...

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4 The Modern Way to Manage Menstruation: Technology and Bodily Practices

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pp. 120-169

New technology introduced on the emerging mass market in the 1920s and 1930s, and advertised aggressively in nationally available media, transformed women’s and men’s experiences of menstruation. Advertisers presented a vision of a “modern” body that was well managed, did not leak or smell, did not cause anxiety or self-consciousness, and did not display other evidence of...

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5 Tampons: A Case Study in Controversy

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pp. 170-192

Although women did not hesitate to use disposable sanitary napkins, many were not so confident that tampons were a good idea. Physicians were equally concerned during the ten years after tampons were introduced in 1936, and they studied and debated tampons’ effects on health. Women and physicians alike were concerned about tampons’ safety, efficacy, and sexual implications. Among...

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pp. 193-199

Over the course of the twentieth century, Americans radically revised their ideas and practices surrounding menstruation, to bring them in accord with a desire to become “modern” and attain middle-class standing. American women adopted Progressive ideals of efficiency, education, and good management, and applied them to menstrual management. Both women and men idealized a body that could work and play at full...

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pp. 201-203

Over the past ten years, while researching and writing this book, I have accumulated many intellectual and personal debts. First, I want to acknowledge the seventy- five interviewees who gave so generously of their time and their memories. I wish I could thank them by name. Without them, this book would not have been possible, and indeed, their stories are what gives this...

Appendix: Interview Method

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pp. 205-210


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pp. 211-228

Essay on Sources

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pp. 229-235


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pp. 237-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780801898297
E-ISBN-10: 0801898293
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801892455
Print-ISBN-10: 0801892457

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 7 halftones
Publication Year: 2009